Late in the evening at my friend Brian's wedding, I found myself making my way across the room to shake the hand of the King of the Judges.
He took one look at me and laughed so hard he almost cried.
I should explain.
Some of you may remember that fateful December night when I found myself sans cash or card, unable to pay for the taxi that had just driven me home. You may remember that it turns out the penalty for being unable to pay for a taxi is more than one might expect. You may also remember that I thanked Brian's father in my column at the time, for helping me out -- strictly on the up-and-up. What you may not have known is that Brian's father is the King of the Judges.
At least that's what we call him. He's technically Supervising Judge of the Criminal Court of Manhattan, but a) that's splitting hairs and b) it's much more fun to cup one hand around the side of your mouth and announce the arrival of the King of the Judges. (King of the Judges! King of the Judges!) Seriously, try it.
Anyway, His Honor having prior knowledge of my misdemeanoriffic history, combined with the fact that he's at least four feet taller than me, has a tendency to lead to two things. First, I almost wet myself whenever we interact. I find myself completely unable to form coherent sentences (I once nearly told him that it was nice having me at his mother's wake) and part of me worries that he's going to forbid Brian from playing with "the Kraemer boy."
Second, he laughs at me. More so when he's been celebrating for hours at his son's wedding. Maybe he's laughing with me. Probably not.
That said, one thing the King of the Judges, along with the rest of you, may not know is that trip to the 114th precinct in Astoria was not, in fact, my first time in the back of a police car.
No, I'm kidding. Well, not about being in a cop car once before. In October 1998, I went on a grad school class-assigned ride-along with two officers out of the 103rd Precinct in Jamaica, Queens.
That is true. Apparently, we were assigned locations totally at random. You can imagine my ... excitement. And, just to make things not at all less anxiety inducing, it was an evening ride-along the night before Halloween. I hadn't yet met Brian's father at that point, but it was nice that life was offering me other opportunities to practice bladder control.
For those of you not familiar with Jamaica, Queens, the best way I can describe it is by having you picture the actual island of Jamaica. And then dropping the Bronx on top of it.
Truth is, it's not the same neighborhood today as it was then. To put things in perspective, last year a total of 1,760 major crimes were reported to the 103rd. In 1998, there were 3,201. That's a 45% reduction. And to explain the actual reputation of the neighborhood at the time, in 1990, a scant eight years earlier, there had been 7,660. My classmates' general response upon learning of my assignment was, "Are you sure?" That did not bode well.
I took copious notes, riding around in the back of that car that night. Those notes, in fact, have enabled me to reconstruct the highlights of my ride-along for the remainder of this column. Because, I'll be honest, my only 100% clear recollection, more than a decade later, is staring out of the rear window as we drove past teenagers, parents, old people, thugs, junkies, gang members, and other assorted denizens of Jamaica, all staring back at me, all thinking, "What'd the white boy do?"
I have in my notes that when I walked into the precinct and announced to the desk sergeant that I was there, but running about ten minutes late for my ride, he gave me a look like he was going to arrest me.
It turned out that they simply had no idea that I was coming, and I was informed that I would have to wait until he could find someone to send me out with.
After about an hour, in which it was revealed to me that conversation in a real police station is nearly identical to that on "Law and Order," officers Wesson and Smith reported to the station. Upon hearing that he had a ride along, and not realizing that the nearby eavesdropper was the observer in question, Officer Wesson asked the sergeant, "Aw, what did I do?" I could tell we were off to a great start.
You may have already guessed, but I've changed the names.
I was then handed a bulletproof vest and directed to the men's room to put it on under my shirt. I don't know how I would feel about wearing one on a daily basis, as they're a little heavy and constricting, but at that moment I felt like Superman. Not only did the cut of the vest make me look really toned, but I was bulletproof.
I walked outside and Officer Smith ("Smitty") warned me to watch out, as the last observer they had in their car was mistaken for an informant and shot at. I tried to smile, but I guess I went pale, because he followed it up with "just joking with ya."
Yes. Ha ha. Very funny.
We finally left at around 5:00 p.m. The officers, both very nice guys, told me I could ask anything, but before I had a chance, they were already telling me about their pet peeve. "Write that we're pissed about how much we get paid," Wesson said. It turns out that, at the time, the average cop in New York City made, tops, $50,000 a year, while the police in nearby Nassau and Suffolk counties could earn up to $70,000.
Both men, who had been cops at that point for eight years, liked what they did. Smitty said that for every one person who hates cops, he meets ten who thank him for doing a good job. Wesson did mention that most of the job, especially the overtime, is filled with paperwork. He called it "C.Y.A."
Oh, I just got that.
By 5:50 we were driving down Jamaica Avenue, heading toward their assigned patrol area. At any given time, the 103rd has six or seven patrols out, each identified by letter. We were in car 03-H (or "3-Henry" as they identified themselves on the radio). Most of the time they just drive around that area looking for crime, and on occasion get called to disturbances in the area. The majority of calls they have to respond to, they told me, were domestic disputes. Officer Wesson joked with me that if things got really boring, they'd take me to one of the alleys to kill rats.
At 5:30 there were shots reported over the radio. Rather than turn on their sirens and rush to the scene, my cops continued driving past York College, telling me about "TAP & Pell Day," when the students' cars are towed to pay for financial aid. Before I had a chance to ask why they were ignoring the radio, Wesson explained the reason they weren't responding to the report was that they usually wait for a second one. "After all," he said, "if there really were shots, don't you think more than one person would call it in?"
It turns out no one had, so we continued driving around. At 5:55 we turned onto Guy Brewer Blvd., the heart of the business district in Jamaica. Smitty pointed out the groups of kids hanging out on the pedestrian areas off the main street. Because the presence of large groups of kids often leads to fights, sometimes the police will ask them to disperse or go home, a request which is invariably answered with a comment like, "Shut up, Pig. We can go wherever we want." He said he hates that kids don't respect cops.
Central dispatch then called them to respond to a report of breaking and entering on 107th Street. On the way, they made a point of showing me the corner where 103rd Precinct cop Edward Byrne was shot in 1989. He had been assigned to protect a witness in a drug case, and was sitting in his police car when a man walked up to his window and shot him in the head. 168th Street in Jamaica has been renamed after him, and the Edward R. Byrne Memorial Fund was created to help fight drugs. I looked it up.
When we got to the house in the report, the two cops started walking around, looking in the windows, and trying to see if anyone was inside. I had prudently decided to wait by the car (duh), and a moment later a man in jeans and a T-shirt leaned out the door and, mistaking me for a cop, invited me in. At least I assumed that's why he invited me in. I declined, but both officers heard him and came back around the front of the house. The man greeted them with "Come on in! If this was a B&E, how come I'm inviting you in?"
He had a point.
They went inside, and I stood by the car, in the dark, thinking, "What am I doing here?" That's actually in my notes. I noticed that a number of people started to walk down the block and, noticing the police car, found other ways to get where they were going.
The cops came back and explained to me that the landlord had been the one who called the cops, but upon discovering that the intruder was just the tenant's brother, declined to press charges.
It was now 6:30 and Smitty was hungry. "Watch," he said, "the minute I get food, we'll get called somewhere." Sure enough, 30 seconds after leaving the Chinese restaurant with his takeout, we were called to a house where the alarm was going off. By the time we got there, the alarm had stopped, but no one answered the door. Wesson tried to contact central dispatch to ask how to proceed, but a number of cars in the 104th Precinct had become involved in a high-speed chase on the Long Island Expressway. We listened to their reports like a radio show while we waited for the channel to clear.
I should mention that the two officers had apparently been partnered together for a while, as they argued like an old married couple. "Oh man," Wesson lamented, looking at Smitty's egg roll, "you got oil all over the steering wheel. I'm gonna have to wipe it off before I drive."
"Don't worry," Smitty responded, "I've been eating with my left hand, and driving with my right -- oh wait a minute.... I've been eating with my right, too. Sorry." I think my folks have had the same conversation.
In reviewing my notes, it turns out most of my three-hour tour of duty passed similarly. No, we did not get involved in the high-speed chase. I'd like to think they would have dropped me off first. I'd like to think that.
Around 7:00, we did find a teenager knocking over a row of 15 traffic cones on a side street. Despite his protests -- "I only knocked over three, man." -- Officer Smith told him, "That's your punishment -- go and pick em all up." They let him go after he finished about eight.
My favorite point of the night, I remember, occurred about 10 minutes later. We were called to a house for a dispute between a father and son. Strangely, the father had called. It turns out he had an argument with his eight-year-old son, and wanted a policeman to tell his child to behave and listen to his dad. The officers were happy to assist, and maybe they even helped prevent a juvenile from becoming a juvenile delinquent. Or started him on his way.
According to my notes, the rest of my last hour with the men wound up being "one of the most boring of my life." Forty minutes of paperwork for a stolen car report. That's the part you don't see on TV. I nearly took Wesson up on his offer to kill rats.
We returned to the precinct at 8:05 and I was very disappointed to have to turn in my vest. I still miss it. The officers then were kind enough to offer me a ride to the subway, which was good, as I might otherwise have wound up being their next call. I have always found it interesting that such a routine night still never lost the sense that something really bad might be just around the corner. What if the B&E had been legit? What if the 8-year-old had been the one to call the cops on his father? What if there hadn't been enough napkins to get the egg roll grease off the steering wheel? This is the feeling that those guys live with, I guess.
I've been to Jamaica a couple times since then, but not on the streets; it's a hub for the Long Island Rail Road. Every time I head out there, though, I think to myself that I should really write up my notes, as a tribute to two officers who treated me well, even though they must have been royally pissed at being saddled with this wet-behind-the-ears NYU student. I'd been in New York all of two months.
So this is definitely dedicated to them, wherever they may now be. I tried doing a quick Google search on their (real) names; I got nothing. Or I got their names wrong; that's just as likely, I don't know. But I do know this: I never, ever, ever, ever plan to be in the back of a police car ever again. Also, I never plan to call Brian's dad "King of the Judges" to his face. That's just asking for trouble.
A native of Elkins Park, PA, Adam Kraemer spends way too much of his time repeating "K-R-A-E..." He moved to New York City in 1998 and earned Master's in Journalism at NYU; don't let his writing fool you. He feels he is best known for saying the things no one is thinking, but afterwards wish they had been. He spends his free time wondering where all his free time goes and why he can never come up with a decent kicker for the ends of his articles.
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